Connected

Yesterday, Mary and I took a hike to Kitchen Creek Falls (near Buckman Springs), and enjoyed a nice view of the falls but decided not to climb all the way down because we had taken some wrong turns and were getting tired.  As we began to head back, we could see a young couple approaching.

“Hey, Mr. Waldron!” the young woman called out.  Yep.  Middle of nowhere.  Former student.

This happens pretty often. It’s a function of having taught in the same school for thirty six years and living in the same community.  It’s actually pretty nice.

Like, there were those years where after coaching AYSO soccer for 10 years so that I could spend more time with my daughter, my former players started showing up in my classroom, kids who I had coached when they were as young as 6, now appearing as teenaged students, and their parents, happy that “Coach Tom” was now their daughter’s English teacher.

There was the time that, when I was an acting vice-principal, I had to pretend to be stern with a 9th grade girl over a minor disciplinary incident.  She was dissolving into tears especially over the fact that I was going to have to call her mom.  I knew that the mom had high expectations for her girls because I had already had her two older sisters as students in my class.  One day I discovered the eldest, tucked away in a corner of the school in tears.  I sat with her for a while, and she told me about the constant pressure she felt from her mom, no matter how hard she tried or how well she did.  Years later, when I was looking for a referral to an acupuncturist, a friend recommended a woman who had a clinic nearby.  It turned out to be the mother of the three girls.  It took us a while to make the connection, but when her eldest daughter began to practice in the same clinic and take over some of her patients, my former student became my doctor and treats me weekly now.  She remembers our high school interactions and the support I offered.  I get invited to her children’s birthday parties.

At the end of 2008, I went through a rigorous, but exciting process, and was selected as one of five San Diego County Teachers of the Year.  I received many pretty certificates and collected a lot of pieces of engraved acrylic trophies, most of which I’ve discarded now.  But the nicest recognition happened when I walked into my local pub, and the man who had run my local hardware store for many years was sitting at the bar and when he noticed me got all excited.  “You got picked as a teacher of the year!” he said, reaching into his back pocket and pulling out a profile of me that had been written up in the local paper.  He’d been holding on to that clipping knowing he might run into me at the bar eventually.  As I settled in, he began going up and down the bar and showing all the regulars the article and pointing at me and pretty soon I had a group of guys coming up to shake my hand and offer their congratulations.  The band broke out their rendition of the CSN song “Teach Your Children.”  It was so spontaneous and heartfelt that I’m sure I did not stop smiling all evening.

So, when I look back at my work life I wonder sometimes about how limited it was, how many experiences I may have missed by not branching out a little more.  But I loved what I did, and I really value the connections that I have in my life as a result of the choice that I made.

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“I’ll Be At The Bar”

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I didn’t start frequenting pubs and bars until I was in my late forties. Since I hadn’t done the whole bar thing in college or afterwards, I always felt strangely self-conscious and more than a little afraid that there was a lot of bar etiquette that I didn’t know and was sure I’d be recognized as an interloper, as someone who didn’t belong. I sort of imagined myself getting tossed out, not for bad behavior, but just because I clearly didn’t know what I was doing.

I started the habit after a very long day of school that ended with “Back to School Night.” Most teachers absolutely dread this forced meeting with parents, sure that someone hostile is going to come in and rake them over the coals in front of all the other parents. I discovered that the solution to this was to keep talking about the class for the entire 10 minutes, never allowing time for questions. I even handed out 3×5 cards to the parents and encouraged them to write down any questions they had for me along with their contact information, which they could leave in the basket provided on their way out the door. I promised that I would get back to them whenever I goddam well felt like it. No, not really. I actually enjoyed most of my interactions with parents. Except the crazy ones.

But that one night the draw of the local Irish-theme pub pulled me in. I met Eddie, an actual Irishman who was expert at putting a newcomer at ease. We talked beer for a bit, he pulled me a pint and since the night was slow, within an hour I felt quite at home and like I’d just made a friend. It wasn’t long before I became a regular and began to discover the perks–familiar faces who always seemed happy to see me, a crowd to gather with for soccer, football and baseball games, free entrance to special events, a place to have a solo dinner out and not feel alone, the occasional drink or two that never got added to my bill because…well, just because.

What I liked most about spending alone time at the bar was the unexpected conversations that would begin on some nights with complete strangers. It didn’t happen all the time, but often there was one or more people there at the bar alone that seemed anxious to have someone, anyone, to talk to. This was especially true of women who, once they figured out that I wasn’t interested in anything but conversation, would sometimes spend the entire evening telling me their story—boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, work, successes, failures—startlingly intimate details that it felt they had been waiting a very long time to tell someone about. I was happy to spend the evening listening and sharing my own story. Most times, I’d leave knowing I’d never see that person again.

I don’t spend as much time anymore at bars alone, just hanging out and passing the time. I miss it a little bit. Not the drinking so much–I still do plenty enough of that at home. I miss the thrill of the chance encounter, the short, but intense connection with another person. It was something that relieved the sense of loneliness that sometimes plagues us all.